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Fireside Chat with Iain Bowker
My name is Iain Bowker I am a director and joint owner of Ensure Safety and Compliance. We are a small business with two offices, one is in Portsmouth and the other is in Petersfield. We have been trading for 15 years and have been a member of the FIA for the last five years. Prior to that, I served for twenty-five years in the Royal Navy as an engineer on ships and submarines. Our business is primarily focused on the delivery of safety and compliance consultancy services, both in the public and the private sector.
A key area of our business is the provision of fire risk assessments, fire strategy reports and assurance safety cases / arguments. As a business, we are passionate about supporting the culture and competency changes that are required in the fire industry post the Grenfell fire and to do all that we can to support this I am an elected member of the FIA Fire Risk Assessment Council. I also represent the FIA on the Competency Steering Group (Working Group 4) and the Home Office Delivery Implementation Group.
We have a significant level of knowledge and expertise within our business that is transferable from other high-risk industry sectors, and in particular the nuclear sector. Although we are a small business, our customer base is quite broad but also quite specialist and niche. An example of this is that we have responsibility for supporting the ongoing availability of submarine nuclear operational berths on the south coast, at Portsmouth Naval Base, in the Solent, and at Southampton.
How have you been affected by COVID-19?
Personally, I have been very lucky because none of my direct family, friends and work colleagues have been significantly affected by the disease. As a business, we were able to adapt very quickly as we were already operating a business model that enabled and positively encouraged remote and flexible working. We proactively recruit service leavers and veterans as both myself and my business partner are ex-service. The reason for this is two-fold: as well as getting a really good quality of employee, we equally feel a strong moral obligation to help veterans to transition into a new career.
When Covid first emerged, our key priority was to do a re-assessment of our general work risk assessments to ensure safety for our colleagues, clients, and the people that we were interacting with. We have been fortunate to have maintained a good level of full-time work for staff all the way through the pandemic. We are very conscious and grateful of the fact that we have fared quite well and also empathetic to the fact that that is not the case for a lot of individuals or businesses. We have all now got a responsibility to support them in the recovery phase.
Do you have any pets?
No but I have two daughters and at some point, both have tried to palm off their dogs on me. I have managed to dodge that bullet – so far.
What’s your favourite movie of all time?
Das Boot, the original one, it’s pretty scary stuff for anyone that has been in a submarine, and also a ground-breaking film.
Describe yourself as a teenager in 3 words?
Happy, uncomplicated, and hungry.
What is your biggest pet peeve/hate?
Tea pots that don’t pour tea without getting it everywhere. The designers had just one job! And failed miserably!
If you could be from any other decade (or era), which would it be and why?
I am pretty happy with the one I am from. I’m a 60’s child and when you look at the sacrifices of my Parents generation, who were born in the 1920’s and their parents who were the generation before them, I think I have been lucky really. Also, when you look at where we are now and the challenges that young people and society have now, it is much tougher for younger people. So, I was lucky to have hit a bit of a sweet spot to be honest.
What is your favourite quote and why?
‘You have power over your mind, not outside events, realise this and you will find strength’. I am a big fan of the Stoics, and in particular Marcus Aurelius. What that brings home to me is to take control of the things that you have control over and try not to worry about the stuff that you haven’t got control over but try and influence it. Take ownership of your own area of influence and do the best that you can to try and make that a positive thing for both yourself and anybody else that is around you.
If you weren’t in the fire industry – what would you be doing and why?
I would have liked to have been a professional sportsman, but I wasn’t good enough and I’m far too old now as well. I would probably be working within engineering, and I would like to think that I would be doing something that would be adding value in countries where they would benefit from support.
What’s on your Spotify or iTunes?
Pretty much everything from 1978 to 1983. I think it went downhill after that. Stock Aitken and Waterman, for me, was the lowest point in British music. I am a big fan of all the stuff that came out of the 1970’s really, all the Punk, the SCA, anything by the Jam, the Stranglers, the Clash, Madness, all that sort of stuff. I do like a lot of more modern music, I just listen to it, I don’t necessarily collect it.
If you could have any three people (dead or alive) over for dinner – who would they be?
I’ve had three friends over the years who have tragically reached a point in their lives where they have felt they could no longer cope, and they have ended their lives. All these events were unexpected. There is a tragic reality of suicide particularly amongst armed forces veterans and young men. It is something, as a society, we must be better at understanding. I would really like to know what was going on in their minds as all three of those events, came out of the blue, were unexpected and were people that you didn’t think were in that space. We have got to get better at identifying and supporting people with mental health issues.
What two things would you take to a Desert Island?
A comfortable chair and toilet roll.
Name a book, movie or tv show that has positively shaped you and why?
Anything on tv by David Attenborough, what a guy! The way he has influenced and transported the beauty of the world into people’s living rooms, pretty much over the entire TV era. He has been around all my life, for the fifty years that I’ve been watching TV, and he is a true national treasure. The way he brings awareness to environmental issues and the impact of climate change is inspiring. You can’t help but watch any programme that he is associated with, with wonder.
If you could be an animal, what would it be and why?
A bear doesn’t seem to have it too bad, it sleeps for half the year, gets up, is a bit grumpy, everyone stays away, and they can just get on with it and eat fish. So, it seems like a pretty good existence.
What is the best gift you’ve ever received?
An aluminium spitfire, which my partner bought for me. As an engineer, when you look at iconic pieces of British engineering, the spitfire is up there, especially when you really understand what was going on at that time. It is a wonderful thing to look at.
What's your favourite thing in your closet right now?
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
This going back to the earlier subject about mental health. Having the ability to spot the problem irrespective of the veneer people are putting on, to be able to get underneath that to intervene and to provide support early.
Where is the most interesting place you’ve been with the Fire Industry?
My introduction to being in the fire industry as such was as an engineer in the Navy. The engineering department effectively forms the backbone of the firefighting team onboard ships and submarines, and as well as being the ships and submarines trained fire fighters, you are also responsible for incident control. So, I have been lucky enough to travel around the world and under the oceans as a ship and submarine fire fighter, which has been great.
Of all the ports and cities that have been to around the world my favourite is probably quite surprising, as it is Portsmouth. I live in Southsea now and Portsmouth has a world class waterfront. There is nowhere else quite like it in the world. When you come into Portsmouth on a ship you have the historic waterfront, the round tower and the harbour entrance and more modern buildings such as the Spinnaker tower. Then you have the history of HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, and the Mary Rose and all the buildings that form the dock yard, and the way that Gunwharf Quays has been developed is very impressive from what was HMS Vernon. You have even got a castle that was built by Henry VIII.
What's the best piece of advice you've received?
It goes back to the submarine service. Ensure the number of times you surface matches the number of times you’ve dived at the end of your career. If you have an odd number, you are in trouble!
What time did you get to work this morning?
At about 8am.
What does your usual day look like?
I try and cycle as much as I can, so I cycle to our Portsmouth Office, which is inside the Naval Dockyard. I will usually stop for a coffee on the way.
We are very lucky that we have such a diverse range of projects. I could be working on nuclear safety cases, fire risk assessments, fire strategy work, training, or business development. So, the key thing that I really do enjoy about what we do, is the diversity and the range of interesting work.
If I am not in the office, I will work from home, along with my colleagues, I have a lot of flexibility with regards to that. I try and get out at some point and do some walking and will generally aim to finish work at 5.
How does your work and family life come together?
Surprisingly well because I try to keep them separate, and I really encourage that as well, amongst the team that I work with. It is important that you respect those personal boundaries, particularly with your own family as well and especially now that I have a granddaughter. So, I try to keep a healthy work-life balance in perspective and focus on enjoying each day, enjoy the moment and making time, particularly for family and friends.
What makes you excited about the future of this industry?
It is a really challenging time and the fire industry has got to drive forward the change that is needed. One of the key challenges, is that we are not going to get the level of regulation, legislation, direction, and leadership from government level that is going to be needed to instigate the change that is required. So, it has got to be driven from within the industry.
What makes me confident that we can get this right is the people. There are lots of good people out there that are trying hard to do the right thing and initiate the required cultural and systematic change that is required. The Fire Industry Association and the other key sector organisations are going to be key in supporting this. Members of the FIA have already taken it upon themselves to try and do the right thing with regards to attaining appropriate third-party certifications, accreditations and becoming part of a trade industry.
The reality is, that if you work in this industry, we should all want the same thing, which is to improve safety for those people that are working and living in buildings and particularly those with sleeping accommodation, where they have not necessarily got a choice about where they live and have vulnerabilities. So, we have all got a responsibility, not just legally, but primarily morally to try and do the best that we can to improve fire safety going forward.
What does the fire industry need?
It needs better and more focused leadership from government, and in the absence of this a drive from within the industry to improve. We need to reverse the impact of decades of de-regulation, a lack of investment in vocational skills and training, as in my opinion, these have been key factors in where we are. We have reached a point where it has become custom and practice for architects / designers / contractors to push the boundaries of regulations and game the system to put buildings up that can, on paper, demonstrate a minimum level of compliance, but are just not good enough. The driver for that has primarily been cost, savings and “value engineering.” All the time that you are driving down cost to maximise profit, quality will only go one way. So, going forward, we have got to be focused on constructing buildings that are of the right quality and that don’t just meet the baseline requirements or even a subjective interpretation of that. We have a long way to go and the culture change that is required is not going to be easy!
What do you like about the fire industry?
It really does come down to the people and for me, that is the real positive at the moment. It is the people that are driving forward the right levels of change all the way through the industry. I think this is where the FIA have a key role in providing a platform of support for businesses.
What matters most to you?
From a professional perspective, it is providing a service that adds real value to improving safety, especially, as I say, for those people that have limited choices regarding where they live and are vulnerable. We must look after them.
What would you tell yourself at the age of 21?
Enjoy life. Do things that motivate you and that make you happy and really do cherish personal relationships and particularly family.
What motivates you?
Faith in people. I have been fortunate enough to travel widely and most people in the world are good people. That is the reality of it, and it is important to remember this, especially when you consider what is happening in Ukraine.
I was deployed on a warship in the mid 1990’s providing NATO support to the Bosnian war in the Adriatic. As part of this, we regularly visited Italy for operational stand-offs. I was there over Christmas and New Year and an Italian family took myself and a Colour Sergeant in the Royal Marines who was onboard the ship, in for Christmas and New Year with their family. So, when you travel, if you travel with an open mind, people are generally good and that is what motivates me. I think generally, it is individuals and governments that can be bad, the general population is normally, pretty good.
Where do you want to be in 5 years?
In a much better place with regards to fire safety from a professional perspective. I think we are moving in the right direction, but we have got to do it in bite-size chunks. The culture change that is required across the built environment will require us to invest in people. I really don’t believe that most people that are out there working on poorly built buildings are doing it maliciously. I think the reason is primarily, for want of a better phrase, through ignorance rather than indifference. There is a lack of understanding, particularly when you are looking at structural integrity of buildings, compartmentation, and choice of materials. So, we have got to invest in those skill sets right from the bottom up.
For me, we have really got to drive through vocational training and balance out that societal expectation of educational excellence and university qualifications against vocational qualifications. We have lost a lot of our skill of hand and investment in that and with regards to putting buildings up, that’s what is going to make the big difference. It is not the legislation changes, it is not the big thinking, it is getting the message through to the people that are working on building sites, of the importance of what they are doing.
Why is the FIA important to you and the industry?
I think there’s a strategic leadership gap in the industry. The industry is in danger of being quite stove-piped and fragmented at times. We have got a number of individual institutions that are independent of each other, and I think the FIA is in a really good position to pull that together and be the sector lead in supporting businesses to drive through the cultural change that is going to be required in making a real difference.
I think there is a leadership role to be provided by the association and I think that everybody that is a member has got to do their best, to drive-through the changes and take ownership.
It is not good enough to be getting third party certification and membership of these organisations as box ticking exercises to win contracts. For me, again, we have got to change that culture and we have got to be encouraging and striving for continuous improvement. The industry has a key role to play in that with regards to being a real link between government and the practical implementation.
What do you want to say to the readers?
Anyone that is reading this, and especially if they have got this far, has obviously got an interest in the FIA. What I would say is get involved. You are paying your fees to the association on a yearly basis to have membership, so therefore, become involved, have your say, and influence change.
Look at your own business and think about what you need to improve what you can deliver to make you more efficient and provide a better service. Support the industry through your representatives and councils to influence change. In short, get involved.
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